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Learning a Language is Hard

27 Feb, 2022

I remember when I was a kid, me and my cousins would be in the living room with my relatives. Everyone was talking English, having a good ol' time until one of the adults said something along the lines of “wait, say that again, but remember the kids are here” (not so on the nose, but it was some sort of secret code) and then all of a sudden the adults started speaking this convoluted coded version of English; talking about something in broad daylight that they didn’t want us to hear/understand.


Here they were speaking syllables and words that I couldn’t comprehend, but I knew they were speaking some sort of code. I knew right then that learning a secret language was the raddest thing in the world.

So, a few weeks go by, I’m in the van with my cousins going to swim in the springs, when all of a sudden they started speaking in their own coded language. I was LIVID. Another group of people saying things that I couldn’t even begin to understand and they LEFT ME OUT!??! Nah bro, this crap ain’t flyin' no more. So I started to beg them that whole ride to show me how to understand what they were saying. They wouldn’t tell me. But, a few more van rides later and they finally gave in to my incessant nagging and spilled the beans. Hard work and dedication strikes again.

It was after all this that spurred my interest in languages, how we can communicate using different sounds and speech patterns to impart new meaning to those around us. I remember too that later on in elementary/middle-school there was an outburst in Pig Latin and other silly forms of “coded English”. We spent hours passing notes to each other using images, coded text, and even passing notes no bigger than a thumbnail with words so tiny we could read them (with our amazing kid-eyeballs) but the teacher couldn’t even tell they were words and not a line on a page (we also folded them so tiny they appeared to be scissor scraps).

Truly those were the pioneering days of my interest in language learning.

Fast forward a decade and a half or so (give or take some millennia) and I decided I would learn a real-life spoken language, finally. The language I decided upon was Japanese.

Now, as you might can tell (or perhaps not, my words are quite odd at times), I am a native English speaker, from America. And for those of you who aren’t aware, according to the Foreign Service Institute, Japanese is a Category IV language for a native English speaker. Meaning it’s up there with Chinese and Arabic as being the most difficult for a native English speaker to learn, taking upwards of 2,200 class hours of intense study to reach basic fluency (which doesn’t include perfecting your accent, learning the various dialects, or mastering various niche domains like science, philosophy or history). THAT’S A LOT.

Why Japanese?

You might be wondering why I chose such a difficult language as my first language to learn. Honestly, sometimes I wonder that too; why did I? Well, first off, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I just wanted to learn a language. And second, I chose it because by this point I had been watching anime like One Piece and was getting familiar with some words and phrases in anime (since I exclusively watched subbed anime).

Yes, I’m a weeb. Obviously. That stupid Dio gif on my homepage should have clued you in.

There was also some underlying reasons that went a little deeper than those main two, some of which I only am now realizing being a few months in (or years, depending how I count it).

The sound of the language intrigued me.

Japanese, while being an Asian language, also fits within it’s own unique sound domain, separate from the other Asian languages. To my ears, Japanese is very melodic, and has a rhythmic cadence to it that intrigued me. It’s consonant and vowel system were also very interesting because all-in-all, Japanese uses a very soft consonant base (not many hard consonants, and when they are hard they’re made soft by all the vowels that accompany them). The vowels are super basic too, there’s 5 vowels, each with one way of saying them that is consistent through the entire language. They never change. And I appreciate that.

The language has completely different way of conveying ideas.

To me, this is absolutely fascinating. Not only are the words different, totally unknown and foreign to my English-speaking ears, but the way they’re constructed and conveyed is completely different. It’s interesting how thought and language work hand-in-hand to shape how we convey and consider ideas. Fundamentally, the destinations are roughly the same but the journey to those destinations is unique to the speaker. Much like there are different ways to solve a given math problem yet ultimately arriving to the same conclusion. I won’t go into examples, but suffice to say it is a reason I stay fascinated with the language.

The language has many faucets facets to learn and discover.

Secretly, I think this was the true reason I decided to learn Japanese. As a language, it has three faucets writing systems to learn, one of which has over 2,200+ unique characters to discover. It has different faucets levels of speaking depending on your age and hierarchical relationship to the listener. There is also a distinct formal “dialect” that is used in official capacities and when addressing the public. The language has such an interesting grammatical and syntactical construction. There’s also still a huge faucet country that speaks it exclusively (though not anywhere else admittedly). There’s so much media that in this language that I could drown my sorrows in the gigantic media industry of Japan. All that, and Japanese culture, history, and even cuisine I find most fascinating.

So yeah, that’s just a short list of why I decided to learn Japanese.


The Struggle

Here enters reality. Even though the reasons I stated above are why I decided to learn Japanese, they’re also all the reasons of what makes it so hard to learn. I didn’t realize, for example, that while having three writing systems is cool, it also has THREE WRITING SYSTEMS. Why? That is far too much to learn. The gravity of my undertaking really sank in once I realized what I would actually have to do to learn the language.

Learning a language is hard!

Once I realized this, I despaired a bit but decided I would continue through. I started learning Japanese in 2016. THAT WAS 6 YEARS AGO. And no, I’m not even at basic fluency, not by a long shot.

But here’s the thing. Even though I just said that it’s been 6 years, those 6 years really have been more like 9 months if you concentrate all that time together. And, those 9 months (~ish, probably way off, maybe more like 12 or could even be 6) are not even consistent nor filled with intense study. If you were to condense the condension even further into actual hours of intense, meaningful study; it’s probably more like 5 months. Maybe? Who knows, this is all just estimating.

What I’m trying to get at here is:

And yet, despite that last point, I still feel like I’m making progress. The goal to keep in mind when learning a language is not where you’re trying to go but to recognize and celebrate where you are.

Staying Positive

When learning a language as daunting as Japanese it can be easy to get discouraged. There’s always more you don’t know.

But again, that’s not the point.

The point is every word you learn, every phrase you understand, every character you recognize is one more drop of water added to your ocean of knowledge (or in my case, a teacup). Really the most important thing is to revel in the times when you finally understand something you didn’t before; whether it’s a new character, a phrase, word, or even a whole sentence or section of anime! In a way, when learning a language, re-watching stuff can actually be kinda fun because if you go back to something you watched a few months ago after learning more, it’s like you get to re-discover the show all over again.

Speaking of watching things, let’s talk about how I’ve decided to go about learning Japanese and how that changed since I started.


The Method

I started off “learning” Japanese really when I was picking up words and phrases from shows like One Piece. Things that everyone should know, like “shit” and “dammit” and “let’s go you bastards!” Very important words to know for sure. *Nods with approval.*

After that though, I didn’t really have a clear compass. I learned Hiragana, and I started to learn Katakana (but around that time is where I set aside Japanese for a few months). Besides that, all I knew was that one should “study the vocab” and “learn the grammar”, but what does that even look like? Well I’ll tell you what it looked like for me with Japanese. It meant paying for 3 months of WaniKani then immediately getting burnt out and quitting for a few more months. WaniKani basically teaches you the “textbook way” of learning Japanese, which is so obscenely boring I wanted to punch my face right through my desk.

I thought “wow, if learning Japanese means struggling with this app for hours on end then I don’t want to do this.” It scared me away from why I originally wanted to learn Japanese: speak a cool language and watch cool stuff.

It’s that latter part which eventually led me to discovering Matt Vs Japan and his corresponding project, the Mass Immersion Approach (also called MIA), which actually evolved into Refold (which is pretty awesome). It was through these projects that led me to what has been for me the Holy Grail of language learning: The Input Hypothesis.

Look, everyone learns differently, and for me I discovered that my weakness in all of this is my lack of discipline. It’s something I’m working on improving now, but first you have to play to your strengths. And for me, utilizing the Input Method really helped kick me into my Level 2 transformation in my language learning journey.

The Input Hypothesis basically states:

You acquire languages by comprehensible input, which is language that is spoken/read/heard at just above your current level of knowledge.

Armed with this I jumped into learning the 1000 most common kanji (which boy did that take me a long time) using Rembering the Kanji and a custom-made Anki deck from Matt Vs Japan that helps you learn the first 1000~ish kanji. Now you don’t really learn how they’re used, you just learn to identify them in media (reading, subtitles, etc.)

This took me a few months, I’ll be honest. I know I dropped it twice for about 2 months each (you can start to see why it seems like it’s taken me a long time to learn, as I keep taking hiatuses), but I eventually got through the deck. Here’s the thing though: I still didn’t know how the kanji was pronounced. Huge gap in my knowledge.

During this period of learning the kanji and re-learning Hiragana and Katakana (because at this point it’s been like 2 years), I took Refold’s advice and just dived into watching anime in Japanese with Japanese subtitles. Of course I didn’t know much of anything that was going on, but I would constantly recognize kanji as they popped up. This was exciting! I was actually understanding things!

With this newfound excitement, I dove into learning the most common 1,000 words in the language using an Anki deck fashioned after the Tango N5 study book. That leads me to where I am now.

The Present

I skipped through a lot of time, a lot of trials and mess-ups and discouragement. I went through phases of not knowing what to do and questioning whether or not I was ever going to learn Japanese. But now, I know that this whole experience is about the journey, not becoming an infinite Japanese master. That comes with time. Time spent immersing in the language, bathing yourself in it.

Honestly, I still struggle with that. Currently I’m still working through that 1,000 word deck (360 cards in), and I’ve been really struggling with immersing lately (I haven’t done any good, proper immersion in two weeks!). However, I’ve found that if I have a lapse in immersion, the best thing I can do is to keep up with my Anki reviews, as they will help (at least minimally) retain what I’ve learned when I go through phases of non-immersion.

Anyways, this was a looooooooooooong post, but I hope maybe you’ve learned a little something about language learning and perhaps maybe it has even helped you stay positive and focused after seeing someone like me still plodding along, refusing to stop trying. Setbacks suck, but what sucks even more is letting those setbacks get you down.

Keep learning, keep immersing!

kenizl86 out!